Reap a Bitter Harvest

by Deirdre

Part 5

Vin arrived at the Seminole camp and scanned the area for Nathan. He slid off Diablo and ambled through the friendly village. He jumped slightly as a pair of strong arms grasped him.

"I've been expecting you. I had a troubling dream about your divided heart. Come and eat, and we'll talk"

"Hey, Kojay." Vin smiled as the elder tribesman embraced him. "I'm alright. It's Nathan I'm here t' see. Got some bad news fer 'im. He around?"

"Yes, he's mixing herbs with the Medicine Woman. I'll get him. You eat..." He ordered, shoving Vin towards a steaming kettle and a waiting dish.

Vin was starving and the venison stew went down easy. He swallowed the last mouthful when he heard Nathan approaching.

"Vin? What's wrong? Somebody hurt?"

"No...everybody's fine." Vin stood and faced the soulful dark eyes of the healer. He put one hand on the former slave's shoulder. "I got a wire fer ya..." He handed the paper over. "I'm sorry, Nate."

Nathan skimmed the paper and swallowed hard. His mind slipped back in time nine years to 1861, when he was assigned to be a stretcher-bearer. It didn't take long for his natural instincts and healing abilities to surface. Something that didn't go unnoticed to kind gray-haired physician named Giles Gibson. He was the first white man who looked Nathan in the eye, and meant it. He took the talented young man under his wing. For four long years they'd served together. He was like a father to the wide-eyed ex-slave. At the end of the war, he was close to seventy and retired. Nathan hadn't seen him since they parted ways, in Kentucky.

Vin shuffled uncomfortably, reading the pain in Nathan's expressive dark eyes. "Iffen yer up fer it, I can get ya there by noon tomorrow. Mean ridin' till midnight or so...but I reckon he's worth it."

"You'd do that?" Nathan drew his gaze up, knowing the dangerous areas between here and Ridgedale. The unseedy element were scattered about, just waiting for unsuspecting riders to drop in. An area not uncommon to bounty hunters. Vin was placing his neck on the line.

"Ya even gotta ask?" Vin's voice was tinged with hurt.

"It ain't that Vin..." Nathan grabbed his shoulder, "You know that area's full of headhunters..." He bit off the intent.

"Chance I'm willin' t' take. Best we get goin'." He eyed the sky. "We can get a good leg up, have a chance t' rest a bit over the other side of the river. We outta put some ground between us...rain's coming."

"Rain?" Nathan eyed the sky and shook his head. He knew better than to doubt the tracker. "Okay, I'll get my gear. Hey, Vin." Nathan paused, gripping the other man's hand. ""

"Anytime..." Vin grinned. "I'll rustle up some grub and fill the canteens. Y'all keep them knives handy..."

"I hear ya."

+ + + + + + +

Buck finished wrapping clean bandages around the quiet gunslinger. He straddled a chair by the window and waited until Chris changed into dry clothes. The crestfallen man sat slumped on bed, resting against the headboard. Buck didn't know if it was a good sign or not, that he didn't want a drink. It was a situation that never came up before, not in the dozen plus years he'd ridden with Chris Larabee.

"Only you, me and Mary will ever know." Buck finally broke the silence. He saw Chris's adams apple bob and the eye's flinch in shame. "But you hear me, Chris Larabee." He dropped his voice low, lacing it with menace, "If you ever take a hand to her again...if you even look at her wrong, I'll shoot you down like the dog you are."

"I...lost control." Chris's voice was shaky, he ran a hand through his wet hair. "How the hell am I gonna face her? What do I say?"

"She told me it wasn't Chris Larabee that...well she knows you weren't yourself. You go with your heart in your hands. You look her in the eye and be sincere. The rest is up to her. You're some kind of jackass, you know that? Do you have any idea how fine that woman is? She's a real Lady, Chris, better than you deserve."

"Yeah..." Chris's husky voice admitted. They remained silent for a few minutes and Chris finally looked up. "I'm going after him. I need to find him."

"He'll be back in a few days. You get your act together and don't fuck this up again." Buck ordered.

"Back?" Chris hesistated, eyes flickering with hope. "He didn't leave for good?"

"Not yet." Buck sighed, "But he was headed that way, until a wire came for Nathan. It's only by sheer luck he ain't long gone. That Doctor that trained Nate during the war is dying. Vin knows a shortcut to Ridgedale. He went to the village to get Nate and head out."

"Ridgedale..." Chris flinched. "I don't like it. They'll have to pass Devil's Canyon, that area's full of lowlifes. Stupid fool's gonna get himself shot."

"Why would that matter to you?" Buck questioned. "Last night you couldn't get rid of him fast enough."

"I was wrong." Chris sighed and rubbed his hands across his weary face. "I don't know Buck...It was like the same feeling I got at Mary's. I got all fired up inside...lost control. I was like a fuckin' animal. I was so pissed off at Vin..."

"Because he saw Ella for what she was and you couldn't?"

"Something like that. This morning, after I left the saloon, there was a hole in me. I lost my soul Buck. God help me...I don't want to feel that way again."

"For what it's worth, I'm betting Vin don't either. He's probably just as miserable at you are." Buck offered.

" hurt as he's is...he'd never resort to what I did. He's a better man than me. You were right yesterday. He's my conscience, Buck. Without him...there isn't anything."

"You get something to eat." Buck walked towards the door.

"Hey, Buck." The tall man turned as his name was called. "You kick ass pretty good..."

"I learned from the best..." Buck winked and tossed a half grin and departed, leaving the brooding man to his painful journey.

On the road to Ridgedale

It was nearly midnight when the two riders finally stopped. Vin started a fire and unwrapped the sack of food. He got their bedrolls spread by the fire. Nathan tended to the horses, and dropped down beside Vin. They ate in silence.

"We leave at first light, we'll get there 'fore noon." Vin said quietly.

Nathan looked across as the fire played on his friend's face. The blue eyes that usually were sparking with mirth or softened with emotion, were painfully pale.

"I didn't even ask...You get Ella?" Nathan queried and saw the face tighten and the eyes grow hard. He'd struck a nerve.

"Naw...she slithered away."

"Doc Gibson...he was the first white man who ever looked me in the eye." Nathan imparted, wanting to change the subject. "Until that day in the churchyard when two strangers stood up against a lynch mob. You and Chris sure..." Nathan didn't finish, seeing the painful flinch at the mention of the blond's name. "Somethin' wrong, Vin?"

Vin sighed and nodded, swallowing painfully. He tossed the remainder of his dinner in the fire and scowled. "I thought I knew him...but he turned on me, Nate."

"Turned on you?" Nate's brow furrowed, "Chris? He'd sooner cut his arm off. What are you talking about?"

"At Ella's." Vin's voice was distant and the flames had an almost hypnotic effect. "I didn't ride to Red Fork just to check up on Handsome Jack." "You were diggin' up dirt on that bitch?"

"Yeah...I got a bad feelin' 'bout her right off. I knew she's up t' somethin'...couldn't place it. Then when that gang rode into an obvious trap, I figured she was behind it. But I needed proof. She had her talons in Chris but good...he was thinkin'with his pants." He coughed, "Anyhow, that's when I found out that she owned the mine and Handsome Jack worked fer her. So I told him...she was no good...she was usin' him. He threw it in my face, Nate."

Nathan saw the hurt clearly in the emotive eyes. All the trust Vin built up in the months he'd ridden at Chris's right hand...shattered in one careless moment. Vin finally found his voice and continued.

"It was the truth...and yet he crawled back t' her bed. How could he do that?" Vin's quiet voice and expressive eyes seemed very, very young to the soulful healer.

"You're feelin' poorly 'cause you think he betrayed you? He broke your faith?"

Vin nodded, tossing pebbles and sticks into the fire. He looked so young and vulnerable it made the dark-skinned healer wince. Vin lost his childhood and every once in awhile; the boy in Vin Tanner came through. Someone young, who was still learning about faith and hope. Someone who suffered far too many years in his young life. Chris Larabee, without intending to do so, had changed that. He'd given the boy Vin Tanner those, hope, trust and more. He'd allowed the younger man to bare his soul. What they gave each other, made them both stronger...whole. How could Chris have been so careless? He knew Vin hadn't had family or structure to teach him about life. Trust came hard to the Texan . Would this event scar him permanently? Would that door that opened, sending the light of life through, be closed forever?

"He was wrong, but he's only human." Nathan tried to catch the downtrodden gaze. "Don't you give up on him. She came from a time when he was young and wild. Maybe a part of him wanted to recapture his youth, before the pain of losing Sarah and Adam. He wouldn't be the first fool who made that mistake. Bottom line Vin - you need him and he needs you. Anybody can make a mistake, it takes a real man to forgive and be compassionate."

Vin looked up and stared at Nathan intently. He licked his dry lips and thought hard on Chris's angry words in the saloon. Chris was more scared than angry. He wanted to push Vin away because he couldn't bear the pain of what he'd done. He nodded and turned away, deciding to get some much-needed sleep.

"'night Nate...and thanks."

"Anytime Vin."

By noon, they arrived in Ridgedale, quickly finding the doctor's home. Mary Gibson knew Nate through his many letters to her husband and by her husband's recollections. She led the two weary men inside. She pulled Vin aside and motioned towards the kitchen.

"I have some cold lemonade and peach pie. Why don't you come with me?" She then took both of Nathan's hands. "He's been waiting for you. First door at the top of the stairs."

"Thank you." Nathan managed taking a deep breath. He felt Vin's hand grip his shoulder and drew on the strength. His heavy legs carried him upstairs.

Vin had polished off two pieces of fried chicken and was halfway through a hunk of peach pie when Nathan reappeared. He looked shaken to the core and Vin immediately stood up.

"It's almost time, Ma'am. Do you want me to come with you?"

"No...thank you Nathan. My daughter and son-in-law are out in the yard. I'll get them."

Both men stood while the family passed by and went upstairs. Nathan's jaw was clenched so tight it made Vin wince. He felt guilty at having eaten so easily, while Nathan suffered.

"Aw, hell..." he muttered.


"I'm down here fillin' m'gullet while yer upstairs bustin' yer heart."

"Ain't nothing wrong with eatin' Vin." Nate crossed the room and sat down hard. He felt Vin's hands on his shoulders and dropped his head. "He was a fine man. It was an honor to know him."

"Reckon that could be said of another healer feller I know." Vin said thickly, squeezing Nate's shoulders.

"Thanks Vin..." Nathan sighed, "I'm glad you were here."

" too, Doc." Vin said warmly, watching Nate struggle. "It's a little warm in here, think I'll get some air." Vin led them outside, where they sat on the porch steps.

A short time later the new widow reappeared. She held out a black bag for Nathan.

"Ma'am?" He questioned, eyeing the expensive medical satchel

"He wanted you to have it, along with his records, notes and medical journals. You made quite an impression on him. I'll have the rest sent, but I thought you'd like to take this back with you."

"I don't know, Mrs. Gibson..." He fingered the fine leather, and the weight told him it was full of top-notch instruments.

"I do, Son. It was his last wish. God Bless You, Nathan." She hugged him and left.

"That's a fine lookin' bag." Vin commented, eyeing the way Nate clutched it.

"It's a whole lot more than that, Vin." He answered thickly, caressing the bag. "You mind if we stay tonight and head back after the funeral tomorrow?"

"Course not..." Vin rallied, "Let's get us a room."

Vin sent a wire to Josiah, informing them of the pairs planned departure after the early morning funeral. They should be back in Four Corners’ in a couple days. Most of the town turned out, the physician was well respected. Vin eyed Nathan's moist eyes and the prized bag that he clutched to his chest. He kept his hand on the right shoulder of the mourning healer, offering silent support.

They left town and made their way back to Four Corners. A rainstorm during the end of the first night washed out the road they took coming in, so they had to detour. By nightfall, they saw the outskirts of a town ahead. Vin reined his horse in and eyed the thundering sky.

"This place is crawlin' with snakes and lowlifes... " He noted of the town. "But that storm don't give us a choice." Vin noted as the two rode into town.

They approached the lone saloon, which had rooms overhead. Vin paused in the doorway, eyeing the unsavory element inside. His wary eyes took in the entire room. The beefy bartender, the two drunks at the corner table. The fancypants gambler who had a saloon girl in his lap and a half dozen rowdy rednecks, drinking and carousing with several saloon girls. Vin spotted a table near the door and took it. The bartender looked over at them.

"Yer the biscuit shooter?" Vin inquired on obtaining some food. The beefy bartender shouted something in Spanish and several minutes later; a harried woman appeared, with a bowl of chili, a bowl of chicken stew and a half loaf of bread. She deposited the meager offerings and left, the bartender appeared with a bottle of whiskey. Vin tossed a coin at him and he disappeared. Vin took a bit of the lukewarm, mealy stew and swallowed with great care. Nathan took a large spoonful of chili and immediately reached for the bread, sputtering.

"Too hot fer ya, Nate?" Vin pulled the dish over and slid the stew in front of Nathan. "I'll trade ya." He offered, clapping the coughing man on the back. "Ya okay?" He asked, waiting for the nod, before picking up the spoon and taking a mouthful. As he started to swallow, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and he slid his hand over his gun.

"We don't tolerate your kind here." A lewd voice offered. Vin raised his head and noticed they had been quickly surrounded. The rambunctious gang had circled the table. Nathan scowled, and was ready to offer to leave; not wanting Vin to get hurt over him, when he realized the burly gang leader wasn't talking to him. The large offensive man stood well over six feet four and went a good two hundred and fifty pounds. He was bald and his muscular neck was as big as Nate's thigh. The beady eyes were bearing on Vin, who swallowed the hot chili too fast and was coughing. "You know what's worse than a nigger, boy?" He leaned down and grabbed the back of Vin's hair harshly, yanking it hard. "A nigger lover..." He spat into the chili and pushed Vin's face in it.

Nate started to protest, and felt the gun at his temple. One swift kick took the chair legs out and sent Vin crashing to the floor. He wheeled and pulled his mare's leg, but saw the gun at Nate's head and relinquished the weapon.

"Y'all had yer fun...We don't want trouble...why don't ya just walk away." Vin kept his voice calm, wiping his face with the edge of the tablecloth. He drilled the brutish leader with his eyes, not giving an inch.

"You threatening me, Nigger-Lover?" He snarled, kicking Vin hard in the ribs.

"Leave him be..." Nathan shot out of his chair, watching Vin writhe on the floor, gasping for breath.

"Shut up, Nigger..." A voice behind him hollered, before a gun but slammed into his head. He dropped like a rock, and hit the floor. The angle was odd and blurry, while he watched Vin curl up as more blows reined down. He lost consciousness as a voice bellowed above; the owner's silver-tipped boots passing by and brutally kicking the downed sharpshooter.

"Let's take these coon-kin out of town and teach them some manners."

Part 6

Vin fought wildly, thrashing and kicking at the arms and legs that applied blows. His head was slammed into the floor, which stopped his struggling. Every painful breath came through the damaged ribs, sending hot searing waves through him. He tasted blood in his mouth and felt his eye swelling. The warm sticky flow from the side of his head gave him the dizzy, nauseous feeling. He grunted as his jacket was taken from him as was his gunbelt. Someone pulled his boots off. His arms were pulled painfully behind him and tied with a coarse rope, which bit into his skin. Another rope was tied to his neck, the knot drawn so that he could barely breathe. His eyes frantically searched for Nathan. He sighed in relief as the bound and gagged, but unmarred an unconsious form of his friend was tossed in the back of a wagon. Vin was forced to stagger behind, trotting in time so that the rope around his neck, that was tied to the wagon, didn't strangle him.

His limbs were burning, aching from the severe test. He fought with all the strength he had to stay awake. He slumped to his knees, eyes rolling, only to have the choker jar him awake. The crude laughter echoed in his head. They rode around him tossing stones and bottles, taunting and jeering. Finally, they stopped in a clearing. Vin dropped to his knees and choking painfully as his little bit of air was nearly cut off. His eyes bulged as he fought to breathe. He saw Nathan looking at him with such pain it hurt worse than the ropes that bound him. He remained on his knees, swaying dizzily, tasting the blood as it ran down his face, past his lips.

A fire was lit as they made camp. Several bottles of liquor were consumed as the night wore on. Vin had no idea where they were or how far they'd gone. He blinked hard, trying to remain awake. He felt his head jerked back by the hair and gasped as the rope around his neck constricted.

"Hey you know," a drunken voice dribbled in his ear. "This feller's kinda pretty...reckon it's a girl? What with this long hair..."

"One way to find out." His backslapping partner agreed, shoving his way forward, winking and gesturing crudely at the helpless prisoner. He squatted down and groped the bleeding victim openly. He issued a low, lewd laugh as his comrades hooted and hollered.

Vin used the little strength he had left and threw himself against the assailants. He felt an arm near his mouth and bit as hard as he could. He lashed out, taking the unsuspecting prey off their feet, with a flying kick.

Nathan saw Vin's move and made one of his own. Despite the awful dizziness and pain in his head, he kicked hard, sending one unruly character into the one next to him, both toppled to the ground. A gunshot caused all motion to cease. Nathan was forced to his knees, and swallowed hard as a rope was tossed over the tree limb above him. He stole a glance at Vin, who had been thrown on his back, the barrel of a pistol pressed hard against his crotch.

"Next move's yours, Nigger...what'll it be? Necktie party or flying balls...your call."

Nathan's mournful eyes met Vin's. He could barely see Vin's features for the blood that covered

his face. He saw Vin shake his head no...and ignored him.

Vin saw the rope dangling from the tree and the deadly intent approaching. Nathan was going to be lynched right before his eyes. Dizzy from blood loss and the beating he took, he felt himself slipping under the black curtain. He gazed frantically at the drunken brutes around them, like a pack of wild animals they were wild from bloodlust. He saw the noose being placed on Nate's neck and he panicked.

"Hey shit fer brains...I want t' talk t' ya." He gasped, eyeing the demented leader.

"Hold up Harley." The brute said, squatting over Vin.

Nathan frowned, straining to hear what Vin was saying. He saw the large, bald brute lean in, grab Vin's hair and say something. Then he tossed back his head and laughed. The others followed suit. He saw something in Vin's large blue eyes that broke his heart - utter and complete submission...he'd given up..they'd broken him. What the devil did that brute say to cause the light of life to leave his friend's eyes? Vin's slack jawed, wide-eyed look frightened Nathan. He flinched as the Texan seemed unaware of the lewd hands that groped him and the rough arms that pulled him up on his knees. His head dropped to his chest, before someone jerked the rope and Vin's head popped up. The last image he had before he was torn from Vin, was that lost, blank stare.

He was forced on his knees and tied to the tree. He felt his shirt being ripped and his heart nearly stopped. He felt it beating so hard it nearly jumped through his chest. Sweat ran down his face, mingling with tears of pain as the first of the lashes from the whip slashed into his tender skin.

Meanwhile, back in town

Gunfire shattered the morning air as the gang exited the bank. J.D. and Buck were across the street. Josiah was hidden in an alley, Ezra on the other side and Chris was on the roof with a rifle. It was over quickly. They took down the felon in a shower of lead. Four died on the spot, one surrendered and J.D. threw him in jail.

While the others saw to the dead men, Chris went to the bank to check on the tellers and clerks. Everyone seemed fine. He turned to leave and bumped into Mary. He stood awkwardly, trying to avert his gaze. The sight of her terrified eyes bearing into him was scorched into his brain.

"Is everybody okay?" Mary asked, breaking the ice.

"Yeah...the clerk used his head. He didn't resist."

"That's good." She said, waiting.

"Uh...listen Mary, can we go outside and talk?"

She nodded and walked ahead of him, stopping at the corner, which was deserted. He stopped a few feet away and gripped his hips. "I've got no excuse. What I did was unforgivable. You were right. You're a decent woman and Sarah would be appalled by what I'd become. I'm sorry, Mary. You have my word, it'll never happen again."

She listened not only to the words spoken, but read his eyes as well. She saw contriteness, pain and shame. The softening of the voice and hooded glance gave her release. She nodded, catching his eye and sent a silent signal back. She squeezed his forearm as she went past. He took a deep breath and released it slowly, one less weight on his shoulders.

He headed back up the street and stuck his head in the saloon. He felt the batwing doors slap his back as he entered. He picked up Buck's beer and drained it, wiping the froth off his upper lip.

"It's been three days...let's ride." He ordered, walking towards the livery. He paused to speak with

George Reilly. The blacksmith agreed to watch the prisoner until the Judge sent someone to pick him up.

The followed, each worried about their absent friends. They rode hard and fast, trying to keep up with Chris's breakneck pace. Finally they halted, J.D. rode ahead to where Chris was returning from.

"Road's washed out..." Chris paused, and nodded. "Tracks lead east...looks like a town up ahead. They must have gone that way." He advised the youthful sheriff.

They caused more than an idle glance when they rode in. The tired, dusty six created a foreboding atmosphere that sending the few passersby shuffling indoors. They dismounted and split up, taking to searching different parts of town. J.D. and Buck peeked into the sheriff's office, which looked deserted. Shrugging, they headed for the saloon. Buck was still looking up the street, waiting for the others, when he felt J.D. tug his sleeve.

"Buck..." J.D. whispered, his heart in his throat.

"Shit..." Buck hissed, spotting the object of his partners concern.

"You got anything?" Chris asked, approaching the door. His gaze narrowed when he spotted the color leave Buck's face. "What?" He said, stomach clenching. His eyes followed J.D.'s across the room. He felt a previously unknown rage encompass him and tore through the smoky saloon.

"What's going on?" Josiah asked, Ezra in tow.

"Good Lord." Ezra gasped. "There cannot possibly be two jackets like that." He said of the familiar hide coat that Vin wore.

"Not wearin' a mare's leg..." Josiah muttered, seeing the gun strapped to the stranger in Vin's coat.

"Where is he?" Chris growled, sticking the cocked gun in the unsuspecting man's ear.

"Huh?" the quivering fool responded.

Chris shot the tip of the coward’s ear off, causing him to yelp and urinate at the same time. "Next one goes right through." Chris warned. "Get that coat off...give me that gun." He demanded, motioning for backup. Buck came forward and took Vin's coat, wincing at the darkened bloodstains.

"Mister, you can't be as dumb as you look." Buck warned, kicking his leg and frowning. "Damn vulture...get those boots off." He swiped Vin's boots and continued to glare.

"I don't know..."

"Wrong answer." Chris snarled, cocking the gun, his green eyes bulging.

"I ain't lyin'," The cowering cowboy quoted, "Bull left the coat, gun and boots here when he took the nigger and long-haired feller away."

"When?" Chris slammed the gun hard into the man's head, drawing blood and raising a point.

"Couple days...I think...Bull don't take to nigger lovers. He was fixin' on teaching that kid a lesson."

"Where's this walking dead man?" Buck asked, gun aimed at the quivering man's kneecap.

"Upstairs...with Tessie and Room Eleven."

"Ezra...get over here." Chris ordered, keeping his gun trained until the Conman arrived. "If he so much as sneezes, shoot him."

"Understood." Ezra nodded and curled his lips in disgust at the prisoner. "Nice morning...wasn't it."

Chris took the stairs two at a time, with Buck and Josiah in pursuit. His black duster flapped anxiously as he made his way down the hall. He followed the numbers until he reached the correct room and kicked the door in. A naked redhead screamed and dove off the bed, scrambling for cover. The busty blonde under the mountainous man never moved as the menacing figure in black approached.

The large bald man known as Bull, turned as the snarling beast approached. "Who the..."

His words were cut short when rifle was shoved between his legs.

"You better start talkin' or I'm gonna blow your excuse for balls right through the floor." Chris snarled, face a mask of fury. "Two good friends of mine disappeared the other night." He paused, seeing the beady eyes dart and the sweat rolling like a river. "You slimy son-of-a-bitch...where are they?":

"Outside town...we were drunk...havin' some fun..."

"That ain't what you said Bull." The slur in the blonde's voice matched the glazed eyes. "You said you was gonna teach that nigger lover a lesson. You said you was fixin' on havin' a necktie party ...You said..."

"Shut up, Tessie..." Bull pleaded, as a gun butt slammed into his mouth. He felt the iron grip around his throat and the dead green eyes bearing into his. He fell off the bed when the other man's friends pulled him away. He tried to grab for his gun, but a bullet ended that poor decision.

"Fuck ..." Chris bellowed, kicking the corpse; his chest heaving with rage.

"We got company, Chris." J.D. announced. from the stairwell. "Four or five...waiting outside. Two on the east side, three on the west."

"Let's get it done." Chris snarled, kicking the dead man again as he walked past.

The shootout didn't take long. The unruly desperado's were drunk and easy prey. Three were killed and two surrendered. One trembling prisoner took a look the storm called Larabee and immediately gave the location of the brutal event. They locked the felons in jail and quickly headed for the designated area. Chris was ahead of the others, his mind swimming with fear. His blood turned to ice as with every turn in the road. He'd clench his gut and brace himself, waiting for a swaying body to appear.

It was on the side of the road, and he almost missed it. A slight form, nearly naked and shivering, curled into a ball and covered in mud. He reined his horse in and slid off, his heart gyrating. He skidded to a halt and dropped beside the battered figure. His hands were shaking as he slid trembling fingers under the tangled hair and found a pulse. He gently eased the body onto his lap and brushed the crimson-coated hair off the victim's face. Where a face should have been, was a blood-encrusted mask, every feature obscured. The scream of revulsion that he bit back burst forth, when he saw the bloody noose tightly tied around his best friend's neck.

"Nooooo!" He screamed, clenching the body against him, his eyes simmering with rage.

"Chris, let me at him." Josiah tried, dropping to the other side. He flicked out a knife and cut the bloody ropes away freeing Vin's hands. "Chris, let go...I need to cut that rope, he can't breath...Chris..."

"Come on Pard, Give 'im up." Buck advised, pulling Chris's hands away. "Let..." Buck's voice caught in his throat as he saw the bloody mask where Vin's face should be. "I gonna kill them son-of-a-bitches with my bare hands." He ranted, Vin's battered body scorched into his brain.

"They're mine..." Chris rasped, breaking free of Buck and heading for his horse.

"No!" J.D. stood in front of him. "What about Nathan? We gotta find him."

"Damn." Chris ran a hand through his hair and cast his pained eyes heavenward.

Ezra held Vin's upper body, while Buck washed his face and Josiah cut away at the coarse rope. Finally the bloody noose came free and the ex-minister poured water over Vin's raw neck, wincing at the wounds. Buck had cleaned most of the blood off Vin's face. His fingers found a sticky lump on the side of his head, a cut on his hairline and one over his swollen right eye. His battered face was blue with bruises. The awful wheezing led Ezra to unbutton the bloody, tattered shirt, revealing a crimson and blue tinged chest. His gentle hands confirmed his suspicions. "Broken." He imparted and saw the eyelids flutter. A soft moan preceded the blue slits appearing. "Vin?" Ezra called gently, tapping the cold cheek without response.

"Come on Slick, take a drink for Buck." The tall man pleaded, wincing at Vin's now unblinking still gaze. The water dribbled down Vin's chin. "Aw, hell, Son, you're breakin' my heart ." Buck lamented, wiping the excess fluid from Vin's pale face.

Chris watched from above, jaw clenched and eyes hot. His hands rode his hips, his face was set in stone. But inside, he was torn in shreds. Vin's battered body was hard enough to take but his zombie-like state was unbearable.

"What's wrong with him?" J.D. asked, as Buck waved a hand in front of the unblinking eyes.

"He's been traumatized." Ezra said continuing his supportive hold. "There is only one thing I can think of that would cause a trauma like this."

"No...he isn't dead." J.D. denied. "Nate's out there. We can find him."

Chris's patience had worn thin and his last nerve was fried. The sight of his best friend, tortured, bloodied and in a catatonic state used his last ounce of reasoning. Guilt assaulted him, sending him over the edge. He dropped to his knees and shoved Buck and Ezra out of the way. He gripped the front of the bloody shirt and shook the slack body hard.

"Dammit Vin! Where the hell is Nathan? Answer me..." He screamed, shaking the unblinking body.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" Buck growled, pulling Vin away and handing him back to Ezra. "Christ, he ain't been through enough already? You have to beat him up too?"

While Buck and Chris debated, Ezra tilted Vin's mouth open and poured some water in. "Come now, Mr. Tanner...Vin..." He paused as the jaws worked, moving up and down. He repeated the effort and then dropped the canteen. He gently tapped the pale face. "Vin, can you hear me? Where is Mr. Jackson?"

"...sorry...sorry..." the hoarse whisper came, silencing all of them.

"Vin, where's Nate?" Chris growled, bending over and snapping his fingers, causing the injured man to jump. Chris was about to ask again, when the head turned and the woeful eyes stared right through him, breaking his heart.

"He's dead...I killed him." Vin wheezed, looking at each face with remorse before his eyes rolled back and he slumped in Ezra's arms.

"Noooo!" Chris bellowed shoving Ezra away and snaking a hand over the slack neck. His audible sigh was felt by each of them. He cradled Vin against his own aching body for a few seconds. His hand pressed through the tangled hair and massaged the warm neck. He winced, feeling the soft, labored breaths that hit his collarbone. Taking a deep breath, he eased him onto Ezra and stood.

"Take care of him." He gazed ahead. "We'll follow his tracks. The shape he was in, it can't be far. Let's ride."


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